Your first line of this post had me thinking about walkability scores for homes and apartments, and I started wondering what you thought about those. They rank a number of cities on the basis of walkability here: https://www.walkscore.com/cities-and-neighborhoods/ How well can that shell around an urban place be designed to be more than just a shell? I like your example of the Victorian home and its wrap-around facade adding some uniqueness to a street, but what about planning parks and unique median strips on some streets?
I tend to trust Walk Scores, and they seem to be the gold standard in terms of measuring walkability. There’s no other measure that I can think of that’s nearly as influential.
I was under the impression that their algorithm calculated the score based on the geographic distance (i.e. as the crow flies) of important amenities, but it seems as if their algorithm is more complex:
Walk Score measures the walkability of any address using a patented system. For each address, Walk Score analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5 minute walk (.25 miles) are given maximum points. A decay function is used to give points to more distant amenities, with no points given after a 30 minute walk.
Walk Score also measures pedestrian friendliness by analyzing population density and road metrics such as block length and intersection density. Data sources include Google, Education.com, Open Street Map, the U.S. Census, Localeze, and places added by the Walk Score user community.
My former address in Washington, DC has a Walk Score of 82 and a Transit Score of 61, which seems pretty accurate. There was no metro access nearby, and every store was at least 4 blocks away, so the walking situation was acceptable but not ideal.
If anything, walk scores overestimate walkability for car-dependent areas that happen to be dense. For example, relatively dense Tysons Corner has a Walk Score of 63, putting it in the category of ‘Somewhat Walkable,’ yet almost everyone drives. Despite the new Metro station, Tysons lacks some pretty basic pedestrian infrastructure.
There’s also some evidence that Walk Scores have a relatively low correlation with ‘Design Scores,’ a measure of streetscape quality:
Contrast this correlation (.62) with a similar analysis from suburban neighborhoods, where the correlation is far lower (.11). According to the authors, “conducting a correlational analysis by neighborhood type revealed significant differences in the strength of correlation between Walk Score and subjective urban design qualities.”
In other words, Walkscore is pretty crude, and at a few points there were big differences in quality of sidewalks with similar scores. This is especially true for auto-oriented areas. Walk score can’t really tell the difference between a comfortable sidewalk and a [sidewalk facing a high-speed street].
To respond to the other part of your comment, suburban streets can enjoyable to walk along if they’re constructed properly. As long as people don’t have to walk along a sidewalk that’s 5 ft. from a road where cars drive at 40 mph, they don’t have to worry about collisions like this. There’s a long park along a road near where I grew up that’s comfortable to walk along, but it won’t do you much good if you’re trying to get somewhere. You’d have to walk for over an hour to get to any store, restaurant, or attraction.
There’s also the matter of trees. I honestly don’t mind a cookie-cutter suburban street as long as there are some old-growth trees still standing. Many developers clear-cut an entire area, build homes, then plant some poor saplings in a neat row. That approach just feels so sanitized for me.